The first thing I did after turning the last page of Mad Sisters of Esi was to look up Tashan Mehta on social media. Actually, the first thing I did was check Slack, because it was 3.30 in the afternoon and I had read through my lunch break and well into the second half of my work day, and the second thing I did was apologise to the technician who was supposed to come to diagnose our fridge that afternoon because I’d missed no less than nine of his calls.

The sane and the mad

But after all that. I landed on Tashan Mehta’s Twitter account, where she has a tweet pinned announcing that this book is being published by HarperCollins this year: “...Mad Sisters of Esi, my wild next novel, has found a home with HarperCollins…(1/n).”

“Wild” is a good word. “Wild” is one of the words I muttered to myself while reading, along with other soundbites like “what” and “nutso”. Mad Sisters of Esi is a hard book to describe in more specific terms. For a formulaic reviewer like me that poses a challenge; it’s harder to knock bullet points off a list of setting character plot pace the way I usually do. It encompasses great swathes of place and time, and sways away from explaining its setting much. It is unquestionably a fantasy novel, but not the kind that bothers with explanations of its magic system. We, like all the characters, are dropped into the middle of the story with no explanation.

The middle of the story takes place in the middle of a whale.

A cosmic whale, the whale of Babel, in which two sisters have lived their entire lives. They don’t understand this any more than you do, but only one of them is bothered by that. This pattern of tension replicates itself a few times across the breadth of the story – in the book’s terms, the tension between the sane and the mad. Or the mad, and everyone else. But Mehta has a seductive conception of madness; madness in the novel refers not to a loss of touch with reality but to the power to create it.

The mad and everyone else is united only in the fact that each of them is sick with wanting – defined by wanting – to learn something, to find someone, to escape someplace. There are two broad arcs that you can draw this way, that of Laleh and Myung and that of Magali and Wisa; this is the backbone of the plot, with subplots branching out from it, but they all mirror each other, as I said above. It’s a simple, compelling way to draw your plot and characters, the literary version of a charcoal sketch. In the course of chasing they run through both time and place; they run into each other and trip over each other and get in each other’s ways.

A dynamic form

Those of you who like scanning movie credits for Indian names will recognise a few blink-and-miss-it nods to Mehta’s ethnicity – references to dhabas and brinjals and one character named Ishita. Largely, though, Mehta’s universe is eerie and unfamiliar even to many of its inhabitants. In a way, they’re all still trying to find their footing on it, a complicated task in its ever-changing landscape. Similarly dynamic is the form; the story switches from one point of view to another, from traditional narrative to epistolary, first-person to third, present to flashback.

I’m aware this book won’t work for everyone. A lot of Mehta’s inexplicable worldbuilding and plot points will likely strike some readers as just vagueness and convenience, a lack of rigour. Some of the recurring patterns I mentioned might just seem repetitive to some, I suppose some sections of the description might feel like a drag. There are certain aspects of the novel that can be interpreted unfavourably, but Mehta’s writing and conviction in her story persuade me not to; I suspended any disbelief – already slim in my case – quite cheerfully.

It’s a good book for people who like fantasy and stories that run primarily on emotion and weird, largely opaque magic; I was tempted to call it high fantasy based on the setting, except the structure doesn’t hold itself to the epic arc that you might expect from that title; despite spanning worlds it operates on a very small, personal scale. More than anything else Mad Sisters of Esi is about the interpersonal. So I suppose it’s also a good book for the lonely.

I’m excited about Tashan Mehta, and I’m excited about this book. It’s an interesting addition to a genre that has leaned towards the formulaic for some time now. I think, if nothing else, you could try it for that.

Mad Sisters of Esi, Tashan Mehta, HarperCollins India.